In this episode, Paratus People’s MD Tom White takes over for Jamie and chats with Richard Smith, Managing Director of EKT. Richard tells us about…
🎙 EKT’s current and future position in the RDK community
🎙 Why RDK could replace Android TV
🎙 EKT’s hybrid set-top box
Jamie will be back as usual for the next episode, but you can find more info about Tom HERE.
Tom White 0:39
Hello, and welcome to the RDK Podcast. I’ll be filling in for Jamie Walker today. My name is Tom White. Don’t worry, you’re in safe hands with me. Today I’m joined by Richard Smith of EKT. Richard, welcome to the show.
Richard Smith 0:56
Thank you, Tom, nice to be here.
Tom White 0:58
Let’s kick things off. Could you just explain a little bit about yourself and what it is you do at EKT.
Richard Smith 1:05
Yeah. So my background actually is in manufacturing, not electronics, but I’ve been in the set top box and LNB business since the early 90s, when I started off with a company called Cambridge, who was manufacturing LNBs. And in those days analogue set of boxes for sky. And that sort of progressed. And I moved more and more from a manufacturing base to, to more operational. Through that I moved out to China in in the early when was the 90s, late 90s. Sorry. So I’ve been in China for 22 years, and Hong Kong and I’ve just got back to Europe. I founded EKT in 2007, so about 15 years ago. And the idea of EKT was to originally to offer ODM services to other set top box companies. So we were you know, literally doing hardware and software designs for other brand names. But over the years, we’ve sort of morphed into a traditional set top box manufacturer.
Tom White 2:19
Okay, fantastic. What does EKT stands for? For those that don’t know?
Richard Smith 2:24
Well, there’s a long story, which I wasn’t planning to go into, but, it stands for Eagle Kingdom Technologies. And I wasn’t aware of this really until we had to register the English name because we related to the Chinese, which according to my Chinese partner, is a very auspicious name, the Chinese characters. And when we came to when we got our first European customer and I had to go register an English name in Hong Kong. I said to him, what does it stand for any he told me and I said, you’ve got to be kidding, there’s no way that I can go and tell people we called Eagle Kingdom Technology. So unfortunately, that’s how it was. But as soon as GLR marketing guy joined us a few years later, he quickly erased all traces of that, and now we’re just known as EKT.
Tom White 3:23
Got it? Okay. You know, it’s funny, right? You know, I think what’s in a name, ultimately, it’s more about what you can deliver the product, the service and the brand, etc. And I think sometimes you can overthink it. I certainly from my perspective, I’ve had that in the past. And I think sometimes you put so much time and emphasis on the name, but the you know, it should be about what you do and the reputation that precedes you, right. But I know it’s such a personal thing sometimes when starting a business. So I get that. And so just to explain a little bit more so obviously started businesses predominantly ODM focus, but are doing quite a lot more now. Where do you fit into this video and RDK space?
Richard Smith 4:06
Yeah, good question. So the reality is, when it comes to set top boxes, we all use the same components. There’s only a couple, there’s a handful of chipset vendors who make separate box chips, right? So we all have essentially the same price, right? And the question is, how do you how, you know, how do you define yourself within those constraints? So you know, we are we’re a mid size, but global centre Box Company within that space. And we’ve had to try and do things to I’m not gonna say niche that sounds small, but to find something that differentiates us from literally 1000s of Chinese set top box vendors, right. And, you know, the things that we can do within that is we can do things just a little bit better. So we do better project management, we have better communication skills, you know, project managers who have languages relevant to our customers. And what we try to do is blend the best of what the East has to offer in terms of low cost, manufacture and time to market and the best of what the West has. So, you know, professionalism, project management, design.
Richard Smith 5:37
So another example is we use a Dutch Design House for our housings. And, you know, a plastic housing cost the same regardless of what it looks like, it’s about the weight of the material, right? If we can put a bit of time and effort in the beginning to create a nice or a nice looking housing, it doesn’t really cost us much more, but it just gives us a little bit of an edge over the competition. We’re, realistic about our size, we’re not, you know, we’re not $100 million company. And we focus there for on sort of tier two and tier three customers. And perhaps tier one in some smaller countries. We’ve got two kinds of products, we’ve got what we call a Zapper. So it’s a non connected, set top box, and a connected product. And we do all of the all of our software for those. So what you would typically find with many of the low end set top box companies is they’ve taken a reference design from one of the chipset vendors. And with that comes, you know, some software and all they’ve done is they’ve taken that software and customise it with the colours and logo, perhaps the issue with that is that, you know, if there’s any customization required by the customer, once you get to the particular cable network or satellite network, it’s very difficult for them to do because they don’t have the skill sets. So by us having our own in house software that’s been developed over the last 15 years, we’re quite well positioned to, you know, do a more professional job on the service at least. And then the other thing, which is really relevant to this discussion is, you know, on the Connected, you know, we’ve dabbled with Android, we realise it wasn’t the product that we wanted and believed in. And hence this discussion around RDK. So those are the things that kind of differentiate us in, you know, quite a crowded market really.
Tom White 7:53
Yeah, I think I think it’s interesting, you say that so, in effect, you’re taking the best of both worlds, right? So from from the east, speed to market, etc. But there’s a plethora of companies, but from the project management, the western style of doing things and blending it into into one right? And that’s quite, it’s quite an interesting way of summarising it, because it is difficult in a somewhat congested market to stand out. And then you link on quite nicely to my next question, because, you know, video is extremely competitive space, despite the consolidation that we’ve seen from yesteryear with, you know, set top boxes, coming from literally a set top box to a USB key stick, and now sometimes integrated through the TV. Lots of different solutions; obviously, RDK and Google main solutions that are out there, Google being a hyper scalar in itself with the Android TV platform. Why? Why RDK and what made you stop dabbling with Android TV?
Richard Smith 8:56
A few reasons. So we looked at Android, and we fundamentally, you know, when we when we looked at what customers were looking for and what we can grow, we finally don’t believe that Android is the right solution. I mean, the thing is, Android has been designed by Google to sell Google services. Not around the operator. And if you look at Google’s roadmap, none of us so none of the middleware guys, none of the cast guys, most likely none of the hardware guys, none of the content guys are in Google’s roadmap, and their idea of world domination, right? So essentially, what we’re doing by working with Google is enabling and and speeding up the demise of the, you know, the world is as we know it currently and You know, what operators are doing and just subsidising Google’s business model, but they don’t play a role going forward, you know?
Richard Smith 10:08
So then if you go back and say, Well, what does the operator want? You know? And why is Android so appealing to them? You know, there’s a number of reasons why, of which the premium apps or, or the idea of premium apps is quite important. And I think the set top box community has created this problem and enabled Android to get such a foothold. Because, you know, what happened was, we all had our own proprietary Linux middleware, you know, we developed our stacks in house, everyone had a slightly different one, it wasn’t open source in any way. We thought we could charge four or $5 for that middleware. And that all changed. And what we need to do is to, to throw away that stuff that we have and unite around a single Linux offering that can offer a real alternative to operators. So, you know, when operators are looking for a solution, there is a genuine alternative to Android, that is Linux and Open Source has been designed by operators to service the needs of operators. And can also, of course, hit the premium apps, which is one of the key things or the, I’m not going to call it a lie, because the reality of premium apps, of course, is quite different. You know, operators are going into Android because they think that that opens up Netflix and all of these premium apps. And but the reality is, of course that it doesn’t at all. They are yes, they’re they’re pre integrated in the app store. But unless the operator signs a commercial agreement with those premium apps, they still can’t get access to that in a legal way. So, you know, these are things we need to address. And I feel that RDK is the one Linux solution that we should all be getting behind that has the power and the momentum to you know, not not only be that, that open source environment that’s been developed by operators, and focused on what operators want and can also deliver the premium apps.
Tom White 12:51
Thank you for sharing that. I think it’s interesting, you say that, because mostly people talk about privacy concerns with Google as well. And a lot of you know, a lot of the appraisers talk about that and the worry around privacy. But but I think you’ve raised some really valid points there, you know, from a commercial point of view, you are subsidising Google, you know, and you would be working with them. But the you know, you’re not on the roadmap for the future, right? You’re in fact helping a company take over your potential position later down the line. So why why would you do that? So I understand. And I think, I think it’s interesting when you talk about RDK. And, you know, my background at university was an embedded Linux engineer and right. So I understand, you know, at heart, it’s, it’s a really nice base kit for creating an open source video project. And, and collaboration is the key open source. And that’s why I’m a big fan of RDK in general, because, you know, as our as our listeners or viewers will know, I don’t often host this podcast, but I’m involved with an IoT podcast. And that’s what’s so special about RDK. In general, that, you know, from a media component, it does a lot, but it’s also potential for IoT projects down the line, and lots of other things involved with that. And I think seeing the ecosystem grow, has been tremendous. I mean, I was I was in I think it was 2016, 2017, I was at the DoubleTree in Amsterdam for the for the RDK meet up. And, you know, there was, like, 50/60 people in the room, you know, the last time I went prior to COVID, you know, a few 100. So, to see that shift, as well, for most of the operators, who were either hedging their bets going with, you know, Android and RDK, or putting everything into RDK. It’s been really interesting. And clearly, you know, as a business, you’re focused on this as well, when we were speaking offline, you know, you’ll know, by the time this goes out, you’re going to be at NAB and you know, it all around RDK. Right. So it’s, it seems like it’s the train that everyone’s jumping on.
Richard Smith 14:59
Well, let’s hope so.
Tom White 15:02
Yeah, indeed. Richard, really keen to go into the next phase of this, as a business, obviously involved in RDK. But could you tell me a little bit more about some of your white label projects as well?
Richard Smith 15:14
Yeah. So we have this collaboration with DTV kit, who is a provider of an open-source DVB stack, based in Bristol, in the UK. And with RDTK. And the idea, the idea came about that, how do we enable more operators to look at RDKin a serious way, so as an alternative to Android, now, of course, the big tier ones don’t need our help, right. You know, they have big software teams, professional teams that can write specs and understand. But there’s, there’s, there’s this group of tier two and tier threes that want to move into the connected world from where they are now, which is perhaps so any one way, they want to offer OTT services perhaps of their own. But don’t know how to do it, other than this story they’ve heard from Android. So the concept of the white label project we’ve done with DTV kit is to basically have a pre-integrated set of box with with with RDK, that’s been pre-certified with Cass has all of the features there that will enable, you know, set to box companies, operators, and app and UI vendors to actually play with, you know, a product that’s pretty much ready, ready for market. So the white level project would need to be kit, it’s a dual tuner satellite board, which has the latest RDK4.2 running on it, and that will be continued to be upgraded. It will have the premium apps, pre-integrated onto that and pre-certified, it will have the CAS at least fair matrix will be pre-integrated and pre-certified. And it will have a UI and HbbTV. And all of that stuff, good stuff in it. And that means that anyone can basically pick up that white label product and get to market very, very quickly, either as a product or a spin-off product of that, or with app development or, you know, just from an evaluation point of view. So it’s really enabling a new group of companies to come into the RDK world.
Tom White 18:03
Yeah, yeah. I mean, of course, I’m filming from Bristol today. So I know, I know, the guys at DTV Kit quite well. And the older ocean blue people as well. So yeah, it’s, it’s fantastic some of the work that you’ve been doing. And I think, you know, in general, this particular project is certainly very interesting. But it’s not just the only white label project is it? There’s, you know, you’re doing a lot as a company, aren’t you? And lots of other initiatives and lots of other projects working concurrently? Something I’ve been interested in is this idea of the hybrid box. So, again, for our listeners, and viewers that may not understand to talk to me about what this hybrid mean today, and what kind of operator would it suit?
Richard Smith 18:51
Right, yeah. So I guess historically RDK and its proponents have been largely US based and largely IP focused, right. And what we felt was if we wanted to bring RDK to a wider audience, we needed to bring in some additional elements. And one of those elements is what we term hybrid and hybrid to us is, is mixing a DVB tuner or in the in the US sense that would be an ATSC tuner, or an ICBT in South America with this, this IP environment, and there’s a few things we have to do there, right. So we have to integrate a DVB stack into RDK. And we have to integrate some of those features that are required, particularly in Europe, like HbbTV. So that’s the concept to bring in some additional elements to make it a much more worldwide appealing product. But so why would someone want DVB? Well, you know, for example, if you, if you put yourself in the end customer, or the end the end user, not all services may be delivered by IP or the operator. So there could be some terrestrial services that, you know free to air terrestrial like we have in the UK, or in the US, they have a large amount of HD content. And rather than then use a bandwidth, the the IP bandwidth to to sort of rebroadcast similar Kryptos or channels, a lot of operators want to take some of that off air content and provide it with a tuner. Right. So, so those are some of the ideas, but really, it’s just to make the the RDK product much more rounded and worldwide, appealing.
Tom White 21:00
Yeah, excellent. Excellent, I think, you know, as you say, having a hybrid and knowing that most RDK deployments to this point, it’d be North American base doing that would certainly cater to a larger and wider market. I mean, as as, as we know, RDK, is heading into so many different directions that as I touched on, earlier, with the advent of RDK, be RDK. For a lot of people talking about lightning now and what lightning can do. It’s come a long way since Silverlight and ActionScript. Three, remember that many, many years ago? Whereas RDK going, in your view? And what will EKTs involvement be in coming years?
Richard Smith 21:48
Well, I think with EKT being you know, perhaps Europe focused and South American focused, largely, what we want to do is to try and like I said, like we just discussed, make it with a broader appeal, to enable more operators to come on to that. So, you know, where I see we can add value is to, you know, help with with DTV kit, for example, to integrate the DVB stack in a very seamless manner and have HbbTV as options into there. We also want to make sure that all of the CAS and DRM companies integrate and pre integrate into the white label product, but in a proper RDK format. So you know, RDK have defined an interface for CAS, and there are some, unfortunately, cast companies who are a little bit reluctant still to, to comply with that, that, you know, they still think that their proprietary way of doing it will mean that they’ll end up with service contracts. And they can, they can earn money that way, but it’s not really the right direction, I think we have to throw away our kind of selfless, selfish ambitions, of how we make money out of RDK and try and work to improve the product to make it you know, the de facto alternative to Android, and perhaps the other way round make, Android becomes the alternative to RDK. Because it’s the way to go. And then, of course, the key to that is that you know, for RDK to leverage its size, and influence with its affiliated companies, right? On the licencing of the premium apps and getting those pre-integrated, because that is the key, right? If we can go. The idea is that in IBC, we’ll be demonstrating a white label product IBC this year, that hope that has, you know, those key premium apps that everyone sees, so the Netflix Disney’s The YouTube, of course, available, and that then becomes a really appealing product and, and a real alternative.
Tom White 24:28
Yeah, I think I think that’s really poignant, right, that RDK will become, you know, the number one that the Android will be seen as the alternative. It’d be interesting to see and, you know, I’m glad you said about IBC. Hopefully, physically, it’d be back on this year properly for the first time. In many, many years. Three years now. I think it is, isn’t it? Yeah, it’s crazy. I’m looking forward to September on the beach, you know, meeting up with some old friends. That’d be nice. Finally, Richard, the question that I know Jamie always asks on the show is what role do you see and would you like to play within the community? Because this is what it’s about, right? It’s all about the RDK community. Where is EKT going with that?
Richard Smith 25:19
Well, I think I think we have to remain flexible because the, you know, the marketplace and things change. But, you know, currently, we want to be seen as the, as the default partner, for those tier twos and threes that are looking to get into the market or, or switch out of Android or switch out of legacy Linux, and help them, you know, to join the RDK family and provide operators ultimately with a better product.
Tom White 25:58
Excellent. Thank you so much for coming on to the show today. It’s been great to talk to you. And yeah, for sharing insights of the business. It’s, you know, it’s always nice to meet people involved in the RDK community, I think I might have to say to Jamie, I might take over a couple more of these in the future. Finally, where can people find out more about EKT?
Richard Smith 26:20
Well, I mean, we’ve got a website (www.ekt-digital.com) , of course, we’ve got NAB for so we’ve got NAB Vegas, so we’ve got a big booth there, where RDK will have a dedicated space within that booth. So anyone who’s interested wants to see a demo, come and see us there. We’ve got anger after that in, in Cologne. And then the big one IBC, where as I say, we hope to be showing all of the premium apps, working on the white label product and there’ll be pre integrated, so it’s literally something someone can, you know, an operator can pick up and, and go to market very quickly. And we’ve had great support from you know, from DTV kid of course, from Ocean Blue has supporting DDB kid from their matrix from the chipset vendor MTK we’re using on the white label. And RDK, of course.
Tom White 27:22
Excellent. Richard, thank you for coming onto the show once more. And perhaps I’ll see you at one of these events in coming months.
Richard Smith 27:29
Hope so thanks, Tom. Appreciate it.
Tom White 27:31
And guys, as usual, make sure you follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn using the handle that RDK podcast and don’t forget to subscribe on whichever platform you’re consuming the show. So you’ll get notified every time there’s a new episode. Until then, take care, and we’ll see you on the next episode.